By Mike Adaskaveg
Merced Speedway’s season opening program Saturday night will be a special homecoming for Atwater teenager Nathan Rolfe.
Rolfe, a standout winged sprint car driver, will race for the first time at his hometown track – the same track his dad, Dennis, raced stock cars on when he was young.
The Winged “305 Racesaver” Sprint Car class has become the opening night special attraction at Merced Speedway. Lastr weekend’s opening night IMCA SportMod West Coast Tour event was rained out.
“There will be a lot of fans at the speedway because it’s opening night,” Rolfe explains. “I’m excited about that. People who never saw me race or saw these sprint cars before will be watching something new and thrilling.”
Known as “305 Racesaver” Winged Sprint Cars because the ‘305’ refers to the cubic inch engine size required by the rules. The ‘Racesaver’’ refers to the cars’ components being highly restricted – which keeps the cars affordable. No in-car adjustments can be made by the driver – which also differentiates the “305 Racesaver” from other sprint cars.
“The cars are so evenly matched that the racing is unpredictable – you can win one week and finish last the next,” Rolfe continued. “I’m usually going 90-95 mph when I throw my car into the corner sideways. It’s the craziest feeling to drive a sprint car.”
Merced Speedway promoter Ed Parker diversified the speedway’s weekly programs this year to include two nights of “305 Racesaver” Winged Sprint Cars.
Winged Sprint Cars have not appeared at the speedway since 2014.
The “305 Racesaver” division was begun by noted Virginia race part inventor French Grimes and imported to Hanford by Kings Speedway promoter Scott Woodhouse three years ago. Now, there are approximately 20 cars tracing in the division.
ROLFE CHOSE THE OTHER PATH
Where most Merced area racing youth began racing competitive go-karts and chose Mini-Stocks, Hobby Stocks or IMCA SportMods to drive at Mrced Speedway, Rolfe took the other path.
“I always wanted to be a sprint car racer,” Rolfe explains. “Once I drove a micro-sprint car, I knew sprint cars were for me.”
His dad, Dennis went with his son’s interest.
“I was hoping he would want to drive stock cars,” Dennis Rolfe laughs.
Doug Watts, a friend of Dennis Rolfe, offered Nathan an opportunity to drive his 600cc micro-sprint. Nathan Rolfe raced that car for two seasons before moving up to full-sized sprint cars. Last season was Nathan Rolfe’s second driving a “305 Racesaver”, and he scored a feature win at Kings Speedway.
“That first win after two years without a win was exhilarating,” says Rolfe. “It was pretty nice.”
MOVING UP TO PROFESSIONAL SPRINT CARS
The “305 Racesaver” sparked Nathan’s interest in driving the ultimate sprint car – the 410 cu. in., 900 Horsepower winged sprinters driven in the King of the West and World of Outlaws traveling series.
The Rolfe’s purchased a 410 Sprint Car last season. Both of their sprint cars are maintained and cared for by the Rolfe’s and Watts, along with his son,s Tom and Shane.
Shane, 19, is the crew chief for Nathan Rolfe. Special permission was needed from the drivers of the King of the West Series to allow Rolfe to compete at age 15. Only three teenage drivers are in the series.
“They are young guys in an adult sport,” Dennis Rolfe says. “They are there to learn. It is serious racing. The fact that they have been allowed to participate in King of the West is huge. ”
For Nathan Rolfe, the pressure is on.
“I have to earn the respect of the drivers – I have to race clean and do all the right stuff,” he says. “Once I earn respect, they will trust me to race side by side with them.”
Nathan Rolfe will juggle racing in the two sprint car divisions throughout the season. His personal safety equipment is the best money can buy.
“I can always buy another car, but not another son – I don’t skimp on safety,” Dennis Rolfe says.
Nathan drives from “full containment” seats – similar to those used in NASCAR. He has a head and neck restraint system, fire retardant underwear, socks and a balaclava. His helmet is made from carbon fiber and his fire suit is the best made by Simpson.
“I am so thankful for my parents, my family, and the Watts family,” he adds. His dad, mom Suzin, sister Shelby and brother Derek are his biggest fans.
“For this year, my personal goal is three wins and as many top five finishes as possible in the ‘305 Racesaver’ division,” he says. “I’d like to finish consistently in the top 15 in the ‘King of the West 410 Sprint Car’ events.
Nathan Rolfe hopes to someday major in construction management and engineering, and is part of his father’s construction company. He is a sophomore at Buhach Colony High School
“As for racing life goals – I’ll follow the path to wherever it takes me,” he predicts. “Whether it’s racing on dirt or pavement, in the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars or in NASCAR – we’ll see what happens.”
SATURDAY NIGHT AT MERCED SPEEDWAY
On the Track: Four Divisions of cars featuring the 305 Racesaver Winged Sprint Cars, IMCA Sport Mods, Valley Sportsman and Mini-Stocks – each division having qualifying “heat” races and a feature event.
Gates Open: Pit Area – 1 p.m., Grandstand 5 p.m.
Racing: Starts 7 p.m. will end approximately 10 p.m.
Admission: Adults $12.00; Children 6-12 yrs. old $5.00; Family Four Pack of tickets is $30. Children fewer than six are free.
Location: Merced Speedway is within the Merced County Fairgrounds 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Merced, Calif.